An era too easy to overlook

The 1970s don't command the respect that they should, argues this well-reasoned examination of a formative decade.

At first glance, Something Happened looks as if it should be filed under current events. It examines an unpopular and divisive foreign war, rapidly rising energy costs, political corruption in Washington, D.C., and economic dislocations that resulted in jobs being shipped overseas.

But in fact, the book is about the 1970s and how these challenges - along with many others - reshaped America's political, economic and social landscape in ways that continue to affect us today.

Edward Berkowitz, a professor of history and public policy at The George Washington University, has written a concise and highly readable summary of an era that has, so far, been widely overlooked.

He makes a strong case that the 70s deserve far more attention than they have received because they marked "the end of the postwar (World War II) consensus that had applied to how America was governed and its economy managed." The beliefs that professional expertise could help solve social problems and that government would always do the right thing were undermined, if not destroyed.

In turn, these changing views about the competence of government helped produce the current environment, which often starts with an assumption that government action is likely to be undesirable or counterproductive.

At the same time, the 70s witnessed "a genuine rights revolution" that increased economic opportunities, legal rights, and social acceptance for women, gays, and people with disabilities.

This revolution was modeled on and borrowed the tools of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. And while for the most part the rights revolution of the 70s lacked the drama and visibility of the earlier effort, it was a broader revolution that continues to have an enormous impact.

The book is divided into four parts. The first summarizes the political and economic issues of the era - the end of the war in Vietnam, the "energy crisis," economic turmoil, and the family of scandals collectively known as Watergate - and is organized around the presidencies of Nixon, Ford, and Carter.

This is followed by a long chapter on the efforts to expand civil rights for women, gays, and the disabled.

The third part covers a hodge-podge of issues like tax revolts and supply side economics, busing in Boston, affirmative action, and bilingual education, as well as commentators like Tom Wolfe and Lester Thurow.

Finally, the book looks at television and the movies.

The chapters on politics and economics are well written and accurate and the author's observations are sensitive and thoughtful. Younger readers will find this a clear and cogent summary of a time they may not know much about.

Older readers will be transported back to an earlier era where they will be reintroduced to a large number of people who have slipped into the mists of history. Anita Bryant, Bobby Riggs, Alan Bakke, Alfred Kahn, Wayne Hays and Elizabeth Ray, Arthur Garrity and Louise Day Hicks: They're all here.

The chapters on television and the movies are somewhat superfluous to the main thrust of the book and are clearly overviews of huge, complex topics worthy of book-length treatment by themselves. Nonetheless, both are exceptionally interesting and insightful. According to Berkowitz, some of the best movies ever made were created in the 1970s.

The truly great films, he claims, reflected contemporary subject matter but used cinematic techniques from the great movies of the past. It was also an age when Hollywood was willing to "take a chance" on talented young directors - Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese, and Allen - who would have a huge impact on American cinema.

At the same time, however, the decade gave birth to developments that were to pose great challenges for the movie industry in the coming decades - the reliance on blockbusters (in the wake of "Jaws") to lure patrons to the theater, a growing focus on economic profitability that narrowed the kinds of movies that got made, and the emergence of video tape that made it possible to see movies at home whenever the viewer wanted.

For the most part, the author is evenhanded in his treatment of issues that remain complex and ideological. But some conclusions seem forced. For example, the suggestion that during this era "Being gay became something like being Jewish or Italian ... a distinctive ethnic group."

Well, not really. And graduates of a legendary women's college will be miffed to find their alma mater characterized as "the women's division of Harvard."

Moreover, readers with specialized knowledge may quarrel with the author's interpretations and conclusions. For example, his analysis of the origins of "Title IX" that sought to increase educational opportunities for women is inaccurate.

But by focusing on the 1970s, this book calls attention to an eventful and formative period in the recent past that is easily overlooked. The wild and tumultuous 60s are firmly etched in popular consciousness and the 80s are legendary as the decade of Ronald Reagan and the end of the cold war.

Contrary to the popular wisdom, "Something Happened" in the 1970s, and Berkowitz helps us remember what that was and why it still matters.

Terry Hartle is a senior vice president with the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C.

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